A federal judge from Louisiana was falling deeply into gambling debt as he routinely solicited money and gifts from attorneys with cases before his court, congressional investigators said Tuesday as a House panel opened impeachment hearings against the judge.
New Orleans-based District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. had accumulated more than $150,000 in credit card bills by 2000, mostly for cash advances spent in casinos, investigators said.
One lawyer told the House Judiciary Committee task force that he paid the judge in cash to avoid a paper trail and that some of the transactions probably amounted to an illegal kickback scheme. Another said Porteous' requests grew so common that he started trying to dodge the judge.
"He began to use excuses that he needed it for tuition, he needed it for living expenses," attorney Robert Creely said. "I would avoid him until I couldn't avoid him anymore."
Porteous _ who sat quietly in the front row of the hearing room during Tuesday's proceedings _ is trying to avoid becoming just the eighth federal judge in U.S. history to be impeached by the House and convicted in the Senate.
A former state judge appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994, Porteous also faces allegations of filing for bankruptcy under a false name in 2001, having improper relationships with bail bondsmen and repeatedly filing false financial disclosures.
He already has been suspended.
Investigators released grand jury testimony in which Porteous acknowledged taking money and gifts from Creely and his partner, Jacob Amato.
Porteous' attorney, Richard Westling, said some of Porteous' decisions "in the light of day, looking backward, might have been handled differently." But Westling said the case "involves friendships that go back years."
"I think what you'll find is that there has never been an argument that what happened in Judge Porteous' courtroom was anything but fair," Westling said.
Creely and Amato _ who once worked with Porteous as attorneys and testified under immunity _ said they gave Porteous at least $20,000 in cash gifts, starting when he was a state judge in the 1980s. That includes $2,000 stuffed in an envelope that the attorneys gave Porteous in 1999 to help pay for his son's wedding, just before Porteous decided a major civil case in their client's favor that could have earned their firm between $500,000 and $1 million.
An appeals court later blasted Porteous' rationale in that case, saying it came "close to being nonsensical."
Creely also said he and the firm paid for international hunting trips, expensive French Quarter meals, and part of a bachelor party for Porteous' son in Las Vegas, among other things.
In addition, the attorneys acknowledged that after Creely complained to Porteous about his solicitations, Porteous began sending the firm frequent court-appointed work and the attorneys returned some of the fees in cash to the judge.
Although Amato agreed that the payments were kickbacks and that they paid him in cash to avoid documentation, he and Creely otherwise maintained that they viewed their financial ties to Porteous as simply helping a longtime friend.
"The only reason I gave it to him was because he was a friend in need," Creely said. "I got nothing back."
Lawmakers presiding over the hearing suggested the close ties among the men was unethical at best. Regardless of whether the gifts were personal, Porteous should have recused himself from any cases they were involved in, they said.
It could be months before the House takes action.
Porteous' behavior was uncovered in a five-year FBI investigation into judges in Jefferson Parish. Although the sting netted other convictions, Porteous was never charged with a crime.
On Friday, Porteous unsuccessfully sued the House panel in an effort to block the impeachment proceedings, saying the committee is relying on earlier testimony he gave under promise of immunity. He declined to comment Tuesday.
Porteous' case is the second impeachment that Congress has taken up this year.
The House voted in June to impeach former U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent of Texas, who is serving 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to lying to investigators about sexually abusing two female employees. Kent resigned his position before the Senate could convict him.
Before Kent, the House had not impeached a federal judge since 1989.